The Obsession with Pale Skin among Modern Chinese Women

There are many things that an expat has to remember to bring to China if they wish to maintain a similar lifestyle that they had in their home country. Familiar types of food are always the most common. Decent roll-on deodorant is another. But one many of the female persuasion will attest to is bringing make-up that does not bleach the skin a whiter shade of pale.

Add to this one of the many hazards of exploring the city street of China’s major cities is dodging, on the hot summer days, the pointed ends of the sun-umbrellas of the urban women of China, and you begin to wonder: Why are Chinese women obsessed with having pale skin anyway? Is our noxious Western media culture that portrays ‘whiteness’ as synonymous with ‘beautiful’ to blame? Not necessarily, there is a more historical perspective to this.

Tanned Skin and the Industrial Revolution

When societies began that extraordinary process of changing from an economy based on agriculture to ones based on manufacturing and services, it’s not just types of jobs that get turned upside down in the revolution. Our cultures also change and the way we perceive ourselves and our place in society does as well. We become obsessed with our status and showing that we are successful and important and worthy of admiration and reward.

facekiniFashion changes; and how we judged skin tone did as well. In a society industrialising, a tan is the uniform of the peasant. It immediately reveals your social status as a toiler in the fields, and for cultures with incredible status anxiety; to have dark skin will define your place in society. To have a tan meant you were now at the bottom of the social ladder, you were part of the old world order not the new shiny urban economy of factories and cities.

To have pale skin told everyone what your status was just by looking at you and you were a person who did not have to work the fields for a living. You had the means to live a life indoors; you were middle class and could afford a comfort life.

The same general principle applies for how Western societies came to view fat in art and fashion. Prior to the Industrial Revolution being heavy showed you had an abundance of food and therefore wealth to support your diet. Fat was fashionable. Once food became cheaper for even the poorest people, then being thin became a status indicator that you had time to spend exercising rather than working, and had money to buy better quality food.

The tide will turn for paleness however. The idolising of paleness in the industrialised societies would soon give way to an obsession for tanning again. Why was this? Now that factory and office work became the norm for most workers soon the tan became rarer and rarer. Everyone was becoming pale now that our work was primarily indoors for daylight hours.

So now the tan showed people you didn’t have to work in the dark satanic mills of industry, and there was no way you were a peasant of the pre-industrial age. So having a tan showed you spent your days by the pool, at the beach, cooking yourself with UV lights, bronzing with god knows what chemicals. Field work shame yielded to factory work shame among the enriched middle classes. Being a shade of butterscotch was no longer shameful, it was beautiful.

Peasants to Professionals: China’s Industrial Revolution

For a complex variety of reasons, the industrialisation process only really began on a broad scale in China at the end of the 1970 with the effective end of Maoist economic policies guiding the economy. In 1978, the Communist Party of China under the influence of Deng Xiaoping adopted a policy of experimentation and letting success dictate legitimacy of policy rather than ideology and cult loyalty.

whitening creamAgriculture was the first area to be reformed and by 1984 China for the first time in centuries was able to feed itself. Farming became more efficient and peasants were now free to move into the cities in search of other work, namely working in factories manufacturing cheap everything and turning China into the workshop of the world within twenty years.

In a country where only within the last three decades have millions of people gone from rural peasants to urban workers, the hue of your skin can tell people immediately whether you and your family had the ambition to move from the fields of the North China plains or the southern rice paddies to the megacities of the eastern provinces, to begin a new way of life that took us in the industrialised world more like seven generations to do.

In China you can go from peasant to professional in two generations; maybe in one if you’re brave and lucky. To be tanned shows you are not the modern man or woman of the new Chinese century. Skin is a status indictor and protecting it through skin bleach and sun-umbrellas is a necessity for the modern Chinese woman in particular.

So while it is easy to believe that she is brain-washed into thinking her skin being dark is shameful because ‘the media’ tells her white is better, in fact the modern Chinese woman is merely trying to establish herself a new identity as an Chinese urban professional who has never had to toil in dirt for existence. She is now a worker who does not sow seed or cultivate rice in ankle deep water; she has a modern urban job and is part of a modern urban culture.

It might seem ridiculous or inconvenient to us but only because for some of our cultures we’ve already done this part. Holding an umbrella is far less back breaking than ploughing a field, so it is not a great inconvenience when you have that perspective about it. If history is a guide, it is only a matter of time before Chinese women take off the face mask bikini and start heading to the tanning booths like the rest of us.




 In-Depth-China      CSA-blog



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